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Nov 12, 2009

Book Review: The Queen's Mistake by Diane Haeger; The Story of Catherine Howard

The Queen's Mistake: In the Court of Henry VIII by Diane Haeger
Published October 6, 2009
NAL Penguin Historical Novel
ISBN-13: 9780451228000; 397 pages
The Burton Review Rating:3 Stars
Review copy provided by the publisher
See my Author Interview here

"When the young and beautiful Catherine Howard becomes the fifth wife of the fifty-year-old King Henry VIII, she seems to be on top of the world. Yet her reign is destined to be brief and heartbreaking, as she is forced to do battle with enemies far more powerful and calculating than she could have ever anticipated in a court where one wrong move could mean her undoing. Wanting only love, Catherine is compelled to deny her heart's desire in favor of her family's ambition. But in so doing, she unwittingly gives those who sought to bring her down a most effective weapon—her own romantic past.
The Queen's Mistake is the tragic tale of one passionate and idealistic woman who struggles to negotiate the intrigue of the court and the yearnings of her heart."

Catherine Howard is well known as Henry VIII's youngest and unwisest queen. Being the fifth queen, Henry was older, he had his heir already, and now wanted a young and beautiful but most of all, dutiful wife who could provide backup heirs. Unbeknownst to Catherine, she was strategically placed right under his nose at the exact moment that Henry was looking to legally dispose of his fourth wife, who was Anne of Cleves, otherwise known as the "flanders mare".

The novel begins with the young Catherine cavorting around her family home at Horsham, as she flirts with her music teacher Henry Manox, and then Francis Dereham. Catherine was an orphan, losing her parents at an early age, but the author gives Catherine a sympathetic air when Catherine lovingly remembers her mother Joyce. Agnes was her guardian and grandmother, the Dowager Duchess who is portrayed as having every intention of providing Catherine with this unclean environment, though Agnes saw it as a training ground for Catherine: to learn to utilize her feminine wiles as preparation for court. And soon enough, the Duke of Norfolk, Catherine's uncle Thomas Howard, comes along and invites Catherine to court coincidentally at that time in 1540 that Queen Anne of Cleves is barely hanging on to her position.

The political charades are written out as exchanges between Thomas Cromwell and his son, George; and then as the Duke of Norfolk scheming with Stephen Gardiner to help Henry VIII find another way out of yet another disastrous marriage. The Cromwell versus Howard political battle is well-played out in the novel giving the reader an accurate sense of the tumultuous period of Protestant vs. Catholic and the ever changing needs and wants of the king. The battles for being a strategically placed family within the courts of Henry VIII are also present with the many jealous ladies at court vying for their own power. The memory of Anne Boleyn, Catherine's own cousin who was Henry's second wife and swiftly beheaded is also used as a constant reminder for Catherine to watch herself, yet she does not heed the subliminal warnings.

The Duke of Norfolk is quite pleased with his niece's beauty and feigned innocence, especially as Henry begins to notice her himself. Unfortunately for Catherine, Henry is now rather fat and unattractive in his eating habits and his leg ulcer getting worse with infection. Catherine's heart lies with Thomas Culpeper whom she meets as she enters the court as Queen Anne's lady in waiting. Thomas Culpeper is a favorite of Henry's, and naive Catherine beds Thomas and falls in love with him. Although in reality, we cannot be sure when Culpeper and Catherine began their affair, the author Haeger writes of it happening rather immediately upon Catherine's arrival at court.

King Henry must always have his way, and if he want to have the rose without a thorn, as he believes Catherine to be, then that is what he shall have. Cromwell meets his demise, Cranmer gets upset that the naive Catholic girl becomes Queen especially since he hates the Howards. Norfolk, Agnes, Culpeper and Lady Rochford feature a lot in Haeger's telling, which makes me hunger for the actual reality of the situation. We know Catherine's fate, but how is it that Norfolk strays from Henry's mad grasp and is not executed along with Catherine? Cromwell was executed because he suggested Anne of Cleves as Henry's fourth wife, so I would have assumed the same would hold true for the Duke of Norfolk, but he successfully untangled himself from the mess that he helped to create. His son, Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, was also a supporting character in this telling, and I have a feeling there is also more to his story. I've had a book titled "Henry VIII's Last Victim" by Jessie Childs which concerns this Henry Howard, and I now have the eagerness to pick that one up.

Catherine's greatest love is portrayed as Culpeper, although she remained faithful to Henry, she still visited Culpeper with the aid of Lady Jane Rochford. Culpeper, Dereham, Rochford and Catherine are all executed. While reading the story of Catherine, I found the title of "The Queen's Mistake" to be quite fitting. Throughout this novel, I had the sensation of shaking my head at Catherine's silly and naive actions. How could she not have learned from her own cousin's downfall, Queen Anne Boleyn, who was executed by her husband Henry in 1536? It was still fresh on the courts' minds as the realized they were having another Boleyn/Howard relation come to the throne. It had to have been on Catherine's mind at some point, but obviously she did not take heed of the silent warning. Catherine employed her prior betrothed, Frances Dereham, as her secretary, and let several other previous acquaintances from Horsham into her court: another mistake. All Cranmer had to do to seal Catherine's fate was to get the jealous girls to spill all they could about Catherine's behavior.

The novel included several important characters as mentioned, but the writing seemed a bit juvenile to me. I had trouble getting into the story from the beginning, especially because of the immorality of Catherine that was evident immediately. I have read Catherine's main events of her life as a queen before, and I had hoped for some insight or to gain a better understanding of her character through the writing of Diane Haeger. By the time this novel was done, I did not feel as sympathetic for her as I would have thought, feeling perhaps that the ends justified the means. I did however appreciate the way that Haeger chose to write the end of this story, and wish the same dramatic feel could have been used more liberally throughout the preceding pages. This is an easy to read fictional account of Catherine's days at court and would be enjoyed by those who do not know the story already. Haeger demonstrates how Catherine made many mistakes, yet I would still like to know more of the facts surrounding her swift downfall and the relationships that she had at that time. Haeger successfully intrigued me on the characters of Thomas Howard, Thomas Culpeper and Lady Jane Rochford so much so that I am going to dig up some non-fiction material to quench the thirst for more. Somehow, the Tudor era continues to beckon my soul, no matter how many books I read concerning these eccentric courtiers.

Culpeper Letter (The surviving letter from Catherine Howard to Thomas Culpeper)

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